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It had begun before I even imagined it, precisely four years, seven months, and three days before, when Id stood in a little room at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and learned that my mother was going to die. Some of them were just what I dreamed of having, others less so. I was going to live the rest of my life without my mother. Not because we felt so alone in our grief, but because we were so together in it, as if we were one body instead of two. She was kindhearted and forgiving, generous and naïve.
That in truth my hike on the Pacific Crest Trail hadnt begun when I made the snap deci- sion to do it. It was an outfit that my mother had sewnshed made clothes for me all of my life. For some reason that sentence came fully formed into my head just then, temporarily blotting out the Fuck them prayer. I almost choked to death on what I knew before I knew. Or the one time when she screamed FUCK and broke down crying because we wouldnt clean our room.
In early June, when I was thirteen, we moved up north for good.
For six months, we went up north only on weekends, working furiously to tame a patch of the land and build a one-room tarpaper shack where the five of us could sleep.
Youll thank me for this someday, my mother always said when my siblings and I complained about all the things we no longer had.
Wed never lived in luxury or even like those in the middle class, but we had lived among the comforts of the modern age.
With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington Stateand she would do it alone. In the evenings, we would make a game of counting the bites on our bodies by candlelight.
Such as if a doctor told you that you were going to die soon, youd be taken to a room with a gleaming wooden desk. We were led into an examining room, where a nurse instructed my mother to remove her shirt and put on a cotton smock with strings that dangled at her sides. Id fainted oncefurious, age three, holding my breath because I didnt want to get out of the bathtub, too young to remember it myself. Shed held out her hands and watched me turn blue, my mother had always told me. She held it stiffly with the other hand, trying to calm it. She wore a purple hat and a handful of diamond rings. She spoke in Spanish to the people gathered around her, her family and perhaps her husband. If I looked at him we would both crumble like dry crackers. Paper roses, paper roses, oh how real those roses seemed to be, she sang. Look both ways, shed call after us as we fled like a pack of hungry dogs.
Karen Cheryl Leif were alone with our mother againjust as wed been during the years that shed been single.
Dani Shapiro, New York Times Book Review I was on the edge of my seat. His back had healed enough that he could finally work again, and hed secured a job as a carpenter during the busy season that was too lucrative to pass up.
Finding it so late was common, when it came to lung cancer. Together we repeatedly walked the perimeter of our land in those first months as landowners, pushing our way through the wilderness on the two sides that didnt border the road, as if to walk it would seal it off from the rest of the world, make it ours. Trees that had once looked like any other to me became as recognizable as the faces of old friends in a crowd, their branches gesturing with sudden meaning, their leaves beckoning like identifiable hands.
There was nothing that could have been done, he told us. Radiation might reduce the size of the tumors that were growing along the entire length of her spine. A year later, he and my mom took the twelve-thousand-dollar settlement he received and with it bought forty acres of land in Aitkin County, an hour and a half west of Duluth, paying for it outright in cash. There was nothing to dif- ferentiate it from the trees and bushes and grasses and ponds and bogs that surrounded it in every direction for miles.